Does America's New Economy Favor Women?

Does America's New Economy Favor Women?
Does America's New Economy Favor Women?

Despite its provocative title, The Atlantic magazine's cover story The End of Men focuses less on the gender wars and more on this question: What if postindustrial society is better suited to female workers?

At least part of the answer can be found in the relative decline of male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and the relative ascendance of traditionally female-dominated sectors -- the "nurturing" professions of health care, education and care of the elderly.

But other factors behind this shift go back to the 1970s, when declining real household wages encouraged women to enter the labor force. At the same time, government programs encouraged men and women alike to go to college. As industrial jobs declined, women moved into clerical work and then into professional sectors which had previously been mostly staffed by males.

Cultural and economic changes have a way of reinforcing each other: U.S. households needed the extra income provided by women entering the workforce, the economy needed more educated workers, and more women sought professional employment as opportunities arose.

Why the Recession Became a 'Man-Cession'

This large-scale inclusion of women into all levels of the economy has had positive consequences for the nation. The Atlantic observed: "As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country's economic success."

But not all economic sectors grow or decline at equal rates, and the sectors hit hardest by the recession were overwhelmingly male: Two-thirds of the 11 million jobs lost were lost by men. Since the recession began in December 2007, men have lost 7.4 million jobs, whereas women have lost 3.9 million jobs.

This had led some to refer to the recession as a "man-cession." As a result of this disparity, for the first time in U.S. history, women outnumber men on the nation's payrolls.

Some observers say this job-loss disparity stems from the fact that male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing are cyclical, rising and falling with the business cycle, while female-dominated sectors such as education and health care tend to be "recession-proof."

But others suggest that the male-dominated sectors are in permanent decline while those offering greater opportunities for women are claiming an increasing share of the U.S. economy.

A Matter of Degrees

Another factor is education, which is increasingly a requirement for good-paying jobs.

According to The Atlantic, females make up 60% of college enrollment, and women dominate today's colleges and professional schools. Of the 15 job categories expected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are filled primarily by women.

One cultural consequence of this is that women are increasingly seeking mates from their more educated, but shrinking, peer group.

This secular trend of more females earning bachelor's and graduate degrees has coincided with the increasing concentration of wealth and income to the top 10% of households, as educated females have been more likely to marry educated, higher-income males and form two-earner households with high incomes.

From one point of view, the relative decline of males with college credentials and better occupational prospects has resulted in younger females' marriage prospects declining in the conventional sense of marrying someone of similar education and earning potential. While the rise of households headed by females (from 10% in 1970 to 25% today) has been traced to more women entering the workforce, this growing educational/earnings gap between men and women may partially explain why some women are putting off marriage.

Men are not necessarily adapting quickly to the post-industrial economy: Nursing and teaching schools have reportedly tried to recruit more men in the past few years with minimal success.

Female workers are not just employed in traditional sectors like nursing: They are now a majority of middle managers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women hold 51% of managerial and professional slots (up from 26% in 1980), 54% of all accountant positions, about half of all banking and insurance jobs, a third of all physicians positions and 45% of all attorneys in law firms.

But should the jobless recovery drag on, women will be as affected as men. The question "Is the post-industrial society is better suited to female workers?" assumes the economy can continue growing as it did for the past 40 years. If that is no longer the case, then the post-industrial economy will have fewer opportunities for both men and women.

Is Japan's Present America's Future?

Should these higher levels of unemployment become "the new normal," as many fear, what might our nation look like? There is one example we can consider for insight: Japan, which has suffered two "lost decades" of slow growth and dwindling job opportunities for its young people.

Just as contract-labor jobs have become increasingly common in the U.S., about one third of the Japanese workforce is now casual or part-time. Given the dearth of high-paying permanent jobs, it's little surprise that roughly 80% of 35-year-olds in Japan live on an annual income of 2 million yen, which is the poverty line in Japan.

The dominance of low-paying jobs without benefits has given rise to a generation of so-called "parasite singles" who live at home for years or even decades after graduating from college. The phrase was coined in the late 1990s by Tokyo Gakugei University sociologist Masahiro Yamada to describe young people who sponge off their parents, live rent-free, and use their incomes to splurge on designer goods, expensive dinners and trips abroad.

The trend of young people living at home is now pervasive in Japanese society. Yamada says that 60% of single Japanese men and 80% of women still live at home and unmarried into their early 30s, one of the highest rates in the world.

This has given rise to a movement of frustrated Japanese parents who seek mates for their "parasite single" offspring.

It is sobering to note that this state of limbo between young adulthood and traditional adulthood with work and family responsibilities is even more prevalent among female workers than among males.

While the trend of women contributing more to the dynamism and growth of the U.S. economy is encouraging, if the U.S. "new economy" doesn't start creating more good-paying jobs for young men and women alike, we may end up with a generation occupying dead-end, low-paying jobs, and living with their parents for the simple reason they can't afford to start their own households.